Spring 2010

Table of Contents - Vol. VI, No. 1


Poetry    Fiction    Reviews   

Todd Outcalt


The Palm Reader

After her husband, Toby, was murdered, Silvia Crane attempted to support herself by working as a cashier, a custodian and a telemarketer before taking up palmistry. She had never worked these streets before, but the idea of reading palms and working Tarot cards had always intrigued her since she was a little girl. Moreover, she considered herself a natural with people and realized that, as Mr. Barnum had once stated, there was a sucker born every minute.
She dressed the part---sometimes taking on the appearance of a lusty tramp or a wayfaring gypsy in order to attract attention---but always it was her brilliant red hair and her alarmingly green eyes that lured others to her art. Once she had a paying customer in the chair, she could work her peculiar magic on their imaginations---altering her cadence of speech, her dialect, her inflection to fit a particular mood or match, and as the months went by she had learned that most preferred to imagine that she was a Russian immigrant, a sweet street whore from the Bronx, or a saucy British hussy. It was like acting---only more spontaneous and dangerous---usually with an audience of one.
Her first customer had been an older woman who had jumped the curb to avoid a mud puddle, seen her sign “Palm Reading by Madame Crane”, and paused wide-eyed with her pocketbook sandwiched between both hands as she stepped toward the open chair. Silvia’s heart had beaten so quickly as the woman approached and asked, “So---you’re a palm reader?”
“I will tell your past . . . and your future,” Silvia had said in a slow, deliberate voice.
The woman---and it was usually women who stopped---had all of the signs of need and desperation that Silvia would come to know the longer she was in the business. Women who were lonely. Women who had lost love. Women who were looking for love. Women who wanted a man. Women who wanted another woman. Women who had lived through so much pain and misery and isolation and hurt that---even a simple statement like, “I see that you have been hurt in the past”, would elicit a relieved smile or a slight flush of the cheeks. “How did you know?” they might ask---taking a few moments to relive their horrors, to speak of them, to bring them once again into the light in the presence of the palm reader whom, they believed, had already seen their pasts fully incarnate in the broken lines of their palms.
And so it was with the first paying customer---this older woman who sat in the chair and forked over twenty dollars to receive the lines that Silvia had rehearsed for days.
“You haven’t always been happy in the past,” Silvia told her. The woman nodded and smiled.
“You have lost and found love several times,” she said, waiting until the woman affirmed the word with a deep silent thought and a furrowed brow of acknowledgment.
“You are no longer close to your family,” Silvia said, and the woman actually shed a tear.
The past, of course, was more difficult, more risky than the future. The past was real: like blood that had already flowed through the veins and arteries of an individual; like pictures on the mantle; like memories sketched in a journal. There was no way to get around the obvious, the real, except to generalize it initially, and then hone the observations like a knife whittling away on wood, shaping and reshaping the customer with deliberate questions, broad strokes, until one arrived at the truth that lay beyond.
But the past was not what intrigued people the most---but the future. To reveal the past was impressive, but to predict the future, to know the coming course of events, was what every person yearned to discover. The future was power, after all, and it lay before each soul like a mystery, like a flower yet to bloom into the fullness of light.
“And now I will tell your future,” Silvia would say. “I will tell you of the things that are yet to be!”
And the ears would perk, the eyes dilate. Nostrils would flare and the mouths would stand agape, eager to receive this truth, this power from her very lips.
“You are going to find love again,” was the most important revelation, she had discovered. It was the one true north, the one beacon of light in most people’s dismal lives.
“I see that you are going to obtain great wealth” was a close second in popularity.
And “I see that your life line is very long---old age must run in your family” was a solid third.
For these services---for these lines---Silvia had grown accustomed to earning five hundred dollars a week. Tax free. And the numbers were growing.
As soon as she worked one side of the street for too long---as soon as her customer base began to wane and the faces grew familiar---she would move to another corner, to a safe spot on the other side of town, and begin again, always with the same results.
Once, after a long day of palm reading on a refreshingly cool summer day, she was visited by three teenage girls with tongue studs who were certain that they could trick her, make her slip, reveal that she was a fake who knew no more about their future than they knew about Geometry or European history. Silvia faced them as a challenge, to test her own skills.
“We want you to do all of us,” the most gregarious of the three---a girl with bright blue eyes and small patches of zits on her chin and forehead---had glowered.
“Betcha can’t tell if we are related,” the second said---a slightly framed girl with pretty features and blonde hair.
“We’ll give you thirty bucks to do all three of us,” the third---a bratty-looking girl with a penchant for Gothic---offered.
Silvia sized them up quickly and invited them to sit down. “Madam Crane knows all,” Silvia said in a deep, throaty voice as the girls sniggered uncontrollably. “Please sit down. We have a deal.”
She received the money and the girls, somehow, managed to squeeze their three bottoms across the arc of the chair.
“Well go ahead,” the bratty little Gothic said. “Tell us if we are related!”
Silvia closed her eyes as if in deep concentration. She constrained herself and tried to relax as the girls laughed spastically in front of her, a crowd of onlookers now gathering to witness the spectacle.
“Look,” the first girl said, “she can’t do it. She’s zoning out!”
“If you can’t do it,” the second said, “we want our money back.”
“Fake,” the Gothic yelled.
Silvia opened her eyes and stared at the girls---her eyes wide with mock anger and torrid, constrained rage. One by one the girls grew silent. They sat ever so still in the chair, glancing at each other with fearful intrigue.
Silvia stayed in the moment and did not speak. She had learned that much when dealing with skeptics. Let them make the first comment. Let them play their hand.
And they did.
“She said you couldn’t do it,” the Gothic stated, pointing to the blonde. “She put us up to it.”
“We were just having fun,” said the blonde.
Silvia waited. Then she stretched out her hand and asked for the palm of the gregarious leader of the pack. She sized up the girls one more time and then began with the obvious. “You are the oldest one,” she said in her Russian accent. “You have a way of making others feel comfortable in your presence.”
The gregarious teen flinched and tugged slightly at her hand, but Silvia held it firm. “I see that you have not always gotten along with your parents.”
That one hit home. The girl drew back initially, but then relaxed in the truth of the palm reader’s observation---a truth evident in every teenager’s life from the dawn of time.
“Others don’t understand you,” Silvia said. “They don’t support your hopes and dreams.”
There was fear in the girl’s eyes now---fear of being discovered, flayed open.
“You have been hurt . . . by love,” Silvia intoned slowly.
The girl drew her hand back. “Do someone else,” she said. “This is too creepy.”
The Gothic offered her hand and Silvia continued.
“You have a good heart, but others don’t see it.”
“You have the courage of your convictions.”
“You, too, have been hurt . . . by love.”
Silvia continued the banter through all three palms until she began to sound like a Russian fortune cookie, until she could no longer remember the lines. And then she returned to tell their futures. One by one.
“I see that you will one day have an important role to play,” she told the oldest.
“I see love in your future,” she told the Gothic.
“You will succeed, but only after much struggle,” she told the beautiful blonde.
They all agreed. Smiled. And when, at the last, they asked again, “So . . . are we related or not?”, Silvia offered them another line that had them spellbound and agreeable to the end: “You are indeed sisters,” she said. “Sisters under the flesh, my darlings. Sisters in life, and in love, and in the music of the spheres.”
The girls thought about the gift momentarily and then burst into giggling song, holding each other and grabbing each other’s shoulders as if they never wanted to part, as if the palm reader had discovered the deepest truth about them and proclaimed the very mystery of life.
For Silvia, these were the sweetest thirty dollars she had ever made. It was also the first time she realized that nothing could throw her off her game or cause her to stray from the assigned scripts she had drawn up in her mind. People heard what they wanted to hear. She spoke what people already knew. She gave people the truths about themselves when they didn’t have the fortitude to admit their weaknesses, their deficiencies, their defeats.
Such a grand game. And she loved it.
The summer was so sweet with song, so flush with filthy lucre, that she scarcely realized that she had hit upon much deeper psychological realities. Palm reading, Tarot cards, astrology, various kinds of fortune telling . . . people believed in them, used them, because the practices affirmed what people were desperate to obtain.
A fortune cookie proclaiming health and wealth was no less effective than the faith healer on the television who promised instant cure if one would only reach out and touch the glowing screen. The crystal ball and the séance were no less real to the person who believed in them than a holy book on the coffee table or the flame of a votive candle blowing in the wind. And the palm reader topped them all. Here was a person who could, through human contact---the most cherished and desired need of all---transform a life through the simple art of persuasion and the power of the spoken word. A word proclaimed was a word believed. A future seen was a future desired.
Silvia had hit upon something.
And as time went by, she considered her services as valuable as the doctor, the nurse, the psychologist or the shrink. She was the poor man’s therapist. For twenty dollars she would tell you everything you didn’t know about yourself---but were desperate to believe---and everything you wanted to know about the future, but were afraid to ask.
One afternoon, at the cusp of September, when the winds had shifted and the leaves were turning toward the first hint of autumn, Silvia gathered her wares and set up for business outside a coffee shop near a busy pedestrian crosswalk. It was a clear Saturday, with hopes of more bright days to come before the trees would change their colors and the earth would begin to gather itself into a winter death.
She was master of her art, and she gave one reading after the other---each one valued by the customer and affirmed with nodding heads and willing eyes. The earth turned. And before she could look up, a young man was sitting in the chair with his hand outstretched and his eyes downcast.
He handed over the twenty dollars as if wearied from the world’s stresses---an open book if ever there was one, and an easy mark. Silvia gathered him in and began her analysis.
He was a handsome lad---probably not yet twenty five---and his face was outlined by a neatly coifed spread of beard, his chin solid, his smile hidden behind the wide, masculine lips that sported, on the lower half, a singular gold pin piercing the center of his soul patch. “You can skip the past,” he said dryly. “Just tell me about the future.”
Silvia had never received such a request before. It was bold. Despairing. Hopeless.
She gave him the European gypsy voice---her best---and clasped his hand softly into her own as she said, “The future is not ours to see until we confront the past. But I will try.”
She contorted her eyes into narrow slits and caressed the young man’s palm as she cleared her throat. Wind whipped the scarf on her head, increasing the effect. The young man was spellbound.
“You are running away from your past,” she said. “That much is evident.”
“Yes,” the young man said. “That’s right, but---”
“---And now you are running toward a new future. You want to go to a new place. A better place.”
He nodded.
Silvia looked at his palm---the way it sloped toward his thumb, the long line of his hand, the creases in his skin, the texture of his fingers. If she could actually read the lines, she thought, well then, here was a tormented soul. His hand trembled in hers.
“You have seen much trouble in your time,” she said. “You have many regrets.”
“That’s the past,” he whispered. “Tell me about---”
“---But you are trying to make amends. You are trying to put the past behind you. Your future is before you like an open book.”
He smiled finally---a cute, innocent looking smile that was also rabid with the cold, hard life of the streets. When he tugged at his sleeve, she noted the meth sores sprouting along his forearm and elbow.
“You have been in trouble with the law,” she said. “You have---”
“---That’s the past,” he reminded her quickly. “What do you see---?”
“---About the future? This I can tell you. You will run far. Wide. They will pursue you.”
She had never said such things to a client before. She wanted---needed---to offer uplifting words, good thoughts, beautiful promises. But she couldn’t find them.
“I see here, from your life line, that you will be cut off. You will die before your time.”
The young man grew worried. Serious.
She had no idea why she had said such a thing. It was awful. Brutal. Horrid. She despised herself for playing on his emotions, for toying with his delicate psyche, the demons that tormented him.
“You will try to do the right thing,” she said finally, struggling to offer a good word in the midst of such misery. “You will try to make amends.”
“But it will be too late,” she added.
His palm flinched in her hand. He began to sweat.
She stared into the creases of his open hand and felt around in his skin as if she were stirring the waters of his past, dredging up memories. Another thought came to mind. A great horror.
“You have injured another person,” she blurted. “You have---”
“Yes!” he said. “But what does the future hold---”
“---But still more injury. Another death.”
Tears were now gathering in the young man’s eyes. He glanced up and down the street as if looking for reprieve. Maybe pardon.
“And here, in the lines of your thumb, I see that you have taken the life of another, you have---”
“Yes!” he whispered, his voice quivering with fear. “But that was a mistake. A drive by. A stranger.”
Silvia the palm reader, Madame Crane, lifted her eyes and stared at the young man’s face. She saw herself there. Something of her past. Her own scars. Her own pain. It was there in his eyes and his heart. In the past and in the future. A life unfurled before her like a scroll.
“You . . . ” She could not bring herself to complete the thought.
“It was months ago,” he whispered, desperate to unburden himself, desperate to tell someone his awful secret. “Just a drive by. I was high. Out of my mind.”
“You . . . ” She was no longer Madame Crane. She was a woman sitting on a curb selling secrets for twenty dollars. She was a woman with a past. A woman with no future. A woman who had lost the love of her life. She was Silvia Crane.
“You killed---”
“I just shot out the window,” he said. “A random shot.”
“My Toby,” she said softly. “My husband.”
But he wasn’t listening. He was somewhere deep in his own misery, his own past, his own self hatred.
Silvia listened as he talked, as he attempted to heal himself. She listened as she wept and began to feel the first stirrings of hatred and revenge welling up in her own soul.
She wept and stared down into the lines of her own palm for the first time in her life.
There was pain there. Helplessness. A flood of memory.
She was still reading her own life when he got up and walked away.


© Todd Outcalt



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